A Rhodes Scholar compares rowing to his humanities education (essay)

Most mornings, upon waking, I pull on my sneakers -- they call them “trainers” here -- and head to the river. This time of year at the University of Oxford, where I study as a Rhodes Scholar, the sun rises late and sets early. My walk to the boathouse is lit by moonlight. I follow a trail, canopied by trees, that juts between two tributaries. The water on one side is placid but pure, a meeting place for the ducks and geese that stream past my feet. The other tributary is clotted with filmy moss. Birds halfheartedly peck at the green sludge and flutter on.

Sometimes, when I get to the river, the banks are draped in mist. Through the fog, I hear faint shouts from teams heaving their boats on the water.

How did I get here? To England, to Oxford, to rising early to row for my college?

The rowing question yields a practical answer. My clumsiness, lack of coordination and general physical mediocrity leave me fit only for sports based on endurance and hard work rather than agility or adroitness. (Hence my high school years spent running cross-country in the North Carolina heat for a coach who extolled vomit as the visible evidence of a race well run.)

The environment that I now inhabit -- ancient, alien, yet suffused with peculiar charm -- is distant in many ways from the Charlottesville, Va., that I love. But some striking parallels exist between my undergraduate education at the University of Virginia and the time at Oxford that I spend training on the water.

Rowing, it turns out, is highly aesthetic. The sport relies on many of the same skills I honed as an undergraduate earning a humanities degree. In developing an analogy between rowing and a humanities education, however, I will note one important difference between those two endeavors: rowing is a luxury, whereas a humanities education is not. This difference, I think, points to one quality that makes public colleges and universities like UVA -- institutions that offer a world-class humanities education to students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds -- distinctively valuable.

College rowing involves eight (sometimes four) people moving in tandem: rolling forward to place the blades of their oars, cocked, in the water behind them; pressing back, straining against the foot plates, to propel the blades through the water. I knew none of this when I arrived at Oxford last year. Learning to row, like attaining familiarity with an academic subject, requires rigorous practice and coaching.

Rowing, however, demands more than comprehension of the mechanics involved. To row well, one needs to cultivate certain habits of attention. A lapse in concentration can set the boat off balance. At all times, one must be aware of one’s posture, the height of one’s hands, one’s position on the slide. As I continued to row, it became clear to me that the sport required not just attention but, specifically, a form of aesthetic attention -- not unlike the capacities that my undergraduate course work in literature sought to hone.

When people say that rowing is a beautiful sport, there are reasons for taking this assessment literally. The boat heaves, as if breathing, as everyone rolls up and presses back in synchrony. The rhythm of each person’s movement meets a parallel rhythm: one’s heartbeat, which accelerates as the boat gains speed. And the boat, a bounded whole, cuts through the water, the blades of the oars scuttling across the surface, charting a path along sinuous banks and yawning trees that dip their branches in the water like spindly fingers.

Rowing’s aesthetic attributes -- tempo, symmetry, balance, repetition and unity -- are not accidental. In fact, they are essential to the sport. A crew that is asymmetrical in power -- with rowers on one side possessing more strength than their counterparts -- will steer off course. A team that falls out of synchrony becomes inefficient. A stroke that traces an elegant arc before dipping cleanly into the water is not just a beautiful stroke; it is a powerful one.

In rowing, athletic success and aesthetic achievement are intertwined. Rowing, like much of my humanities course work in college -- specifically in literature and art history -- takes as one of its central premises the idea that the aesthetic is a worthy object of careful study.

And rowing, much like an undergraduate literature class, instills the belief that such study entails developing certain habits of attention. Both endeavors -- learning to row and earning a literature degree -- require a keen awareness of what artists and writers call form. In rowing, form refers to body positioning, rather than genre, texture or anything else that literature and art critics might speak of. But in both cases, form connotes an aesthetic shape essential to the enterprise at hand: the motion of the boat, the beauty of the poem.

Most mornings, then, I do two things at once: I row, and I drift into aesthetic contemplation. (Sometimes to a fault: “Eyes in the boat, Tyson!” my coach will shout.) This conjunction brings me to an important fault line in my analogy between rowing and an education in the humanities. There is a broad perception in American culture that both rowing and aesthetic inquiry are luxuries: inessential and restricted to a leisured class. Rowing is, I think, a genuine luxury. The boats and equipment require staggering capital investment. The sport tends to thrive at posh secondary schools in the United States and at institutions like Oxford, where one of my teammates (who, I hasten to add, is a lovely person) told me he was thinking about buying an island -- islands off the Scottish coast apparently sell for around 20,000 pounds -- but decided it was a poor investment because of climate change.

The view that aesthetic contemplation is a luxury is, by contrast, false -- and especially pernicious when applied to liberal arts education. The resistance of American colleges and universities to this view is what enabled me to make it to Oxford in the first place. I attended public school in North Carolina and then matriculated at UVA, a public university, where my professors encouraged me to pursue my interest in literature. They pressed me to approach literature not as an avenue for self-indulgent reverie, but as a way of gaining insight into matters of urgent, daily significance in human lives: issues such as self-understanding, social disenfranchisement and moral obligation. That I received such an education testifies to the hard work of my professors and the seriousness of UVA’s commitment to the liberal arts.

In fact, of the seven Rhodes Scholars selected from UVA in the last 10 years, four have either embarked upon, or are strongly considering, an academic career in the humanities. A fifth student majored in modern literature and religious studies while an undergraduate. This sample is too small, and the Rhodes selection process too random, for us to draw unqualified conclusions. But it seems indisputable that UVA’s humanities departments mark an area of strength that Rhodes selection committees have, in recent years, recognized.

Public universities (as well as independent colleges and universities with generous financial aid programs) that continue to emphasize humanistic education deserve praise. UVA still has work to do in recruiting and supporting students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Nonetheless, Virginians are lucky to have a flagship institution that prizes liberal arts education as a necessary investment in the state’s human capital. I attended UVA financed largely by need-based grants. Without the university’s understanding of aesthetic inquiry not as a luxury but as a vital human good, I doubt I would be at Oxford today. My hope is that my alma mater, as well as other colleges and universities, retains this commitment to the humanities so as to awaken other students, from any socioeconomic background, to the possibilities that a humanities education engenders -- possibilities that include, in my fortunate case, solitary walks down moonlit trails. Maybe one day I’ll walk down that trail again, and I’ll see those future students training on the river -- rowing in tempo, but every so often snatching glances at the sky.

Charlie Tyson graduated from the University of Virginia in 2014 and last year earned an M.St. in English literature from the University of Oxford, where he is currently working toward an M.Sc. in history of science, medicine and technology. He is a former intern at Inside HIgher Ed. This article is adapted from a piece that first appeared in UVA Today.

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Job openings are down in English and foreign languages

Faculty positions decline for third year in a row, MLA report finds.

How misguided university policies are harming the humanities, arts and sciences (essay)

The news media is awash with the question of the future of the humanities in higher education. Are the humanities dead? Do they have value? Do they pay off? Do today’s students have an interest in the liberal arts? Does it matter?

Right or wrong, the easy assumption is that economic forces play out in university funding, job opportunities in STEM fields, and economic calculations of students and families. Those economic forces combine with public perceptions about the limited financial returns of areas of study that seemingly lack direct vocational resonance -- notably, the humanities.

That common view attracts some criticism. Professors and pundits defend the worth of the humanities -- from building character to thinking critically to valuing tradition. They attack philistinism, and they cite estimates of rising enrollments in the humanities and lifetime versus starting salaries. A few voices speak to preparing for multiple or sequential careers and lifelong learning. Fewer still point to the exaggerated numbers of high-paying, high-tech STEM jobs.

In my view as a university professor, too many of our defenses are weak ones. We should be able to mount a much stronger case and demonstrate more vigorously and convincingly our advantages, which are very real. Meanwhile, not recognized are the ways in which universities themselves have actively attacked and even crippled the humanities, the arts, and also the sciences -- the so-called foundations of higher education.

My own large public university does this through a series of policies and then a supposed ignorance of the combined impact of those policies. Not only do they actively damage the institution’s ability to conduct its business and to meet the needs of its students, faculty and component colleges but together they also constitute administrative malpractice.

The fact is that the university has chosen to admit and enroll increasingly more students in professional and preprofessional areas, especially engineering and business. Among the consequences has been the decline of about 40 percent over the past four years in both numbers of majors and course enrollments in the humanities. But the university did not take this path through any public discussion, explicit decision making or consideration of the major effects.

The principal weapon is a policy called the One University Enrollment Plan. Officially, one of its stated goals is to raise the average ACT scores of the entering first-year class. And this it did -- by 1.1 points in the last five years, from 27.8 to 28.9 at the main campus in Columbus, Ohio. That allows the university to claim that the incoming class is the “smartest” in its history. In addition, it counts in U.S. News & World Report rankings.

Less publicized is the goal of increasing the proportion of entering students from outside the state. Why? Well, other state universities do it. It also brings in more revenue from higher tuition rates. Access for in-state students can wait, despite the fact that access is part of the university’s vision. The percentage of African-American students at the Columbus campus has continued to fall, as it has since 2000.

That is one set of issues. Another is how this policy is enacted. In that enactment, the university reveals the assumptions of how it defines itself. Focusing on the rate of increase in applications to the campus’s colleges, the university achieves the goal by admitting a larger percent of the engineering and business students who apply and admitting fewer of the humanities, arts and science students who do. In other words, that seemingly simple arithmetic operation is not a matter of mathematics or science but rather a statement about the nature, purpose and shape of higher education.

For example, and surprising to many people today, the number of applicants in the humanities increases steadily and is approaching historically high levels -- up 25 percent since 2012 and 52 percent since 2004 at the Columbus campus. But numbers admitted have declined by 37 percent since 2010, the year before the enrollment plan began, and by 18 percent since 2012. Similarly, since the enrollment plan started in 2011, the proportion of admitted students enrolling (the yield rate) in the humanities (only 30.5 percent of admits in 2014) has declined at a faster rate than in the university as a whole.

The arts show the same trends. The fact that the rate of increase in applicants has been less in the humanities and the arts and sciences than in engineering and business has been allowed to obscure the fact that the total number of applications and therefore interest in the former areas is increasing. Admissions and enrollment in the sciences, perhaps surprisingly, have also declined but not as steeply. It is more than ironic that science is left out of STEM when it comes to admissions and enrollment efforts.

The results? I have been told that the College of Engineering has more students than it needs. Meanwhile, the Arts and Science College, the largest, cannot pay its bills and is declining in all dimensions.

What’s more, the enrollment plan interacts with other policies that also have a detrimental effect on the arts, humanities and sciences. Those include lowering and redistributing general education program requirements and basing unit budgets overwhelmingly on student course enrollments (semester credit hours) -- so-called responsibility-centered management. Under the combined impact, the dean of Arts and Sciences declared a crisis, which the news media reported last May.

The originators of the enrollment plan never considered its impact on the balance of students across the colleges or its effect on the operations of individual colleges. When asked about this, university officials told me honestly that they’d never looked at that. Nor was the simple fact that the average ACT scores could have been raised without unbalancing the university and weakening its central areas. In the current economic climate, many talented high school students interested in all fields of study have heightened interest in public universities. Of course, they need to be recruited, admitted and enrolled.

A university cannot construct its student body by blindly pursuing percentage increases in applications to the neglect of the undergraduate population over all or the impact on its academic components. A university is not determined by a popularity contest. In fact, its reason to exist is just the opposite.

Apart from overloading disproportionately some parts of the university and underserving (and underfunding) others, such actions ignore, for example, that the College of Engineering reportedly graduates a lower proportion of its entering students than other colleges (and is also marked by a gender imbalance).

Without a larger discussion and declared institutionwide policies about the present and future of higher education, such actions cripple the contemporary university’s core, compromise its declared mission and move from a balanced university to a vocational and technical institute. Indeed, such actions answer crucial and challenging questions about the future and the value of the liberal arts and sciences without ever asking them.

Harvey J. Graff is Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies and professor of English and history at Ohio State University. His most recent book is Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

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The humanities must work to promote their worth to the public (essay)

At a town hall campaign stop in South Carolina, Jeb Bush recently singled out an interesting group for attack: psychology, philosophy and liberal arts majors. He said:

“When a student shows up, they [their college or university] ought to say, ‘Hey, that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that's great, it's important to have liberal arts … but realize, you're going to be working a Chick-fil-A.’”

In the week since, Bush has drawn some well-deserved ire for his remarks. But those of us in the humanities would be deluding ourselves if we didn’t admit that we have a serious image problem. Policy makers like Bush have completely bought into the notion that a STEM degree is the only way to get a good job. If the humanities are going to reclaim the narrative, we have to work together and fight to promote our worth to the public.

We have a lot of catching up to do. For the past 20 years, American education policy has singularly promoted the science, technology, engineering and math fields, which has had a devastating impact on the arts and humanities. As a result, we have seen declining investments in non-STEM fields -- always paltry by contrast -- and shrinking student enrollments. Some universities have shuttered entire programs in the arts and humanities.

Worse, this has promoted a popular idea that degrees in non-STEM and nonbusiness fields are “useless” -- that building tech and selling tech are the only ways to ensure your financial future. This is in spite of mounting numbers of studies that indicate that America does not have a shortage of scientists and that a STEM degree does not ensure a better chance of employment or higher wages.

We in non-STEM fields have been slow to assert ourselves. Not enough of us have argued aggressively for the utility of our discipline, and those who have, such as the History Relevance Campaign and the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences (who drafted the excellent “The Heart of the Matter” report), have been fighting largely alone rather than as part of a coordinated, organized movement.

If we are to save our disciplines from irrelevance -- from the realm of the dilettante or hobbyist -- the answer is not to show our complementary utility to STEM fields (as advocates of “STEAM” have). Instead, we must rethink the common threads that our disciplines have to offer and how we present ourselves and our subjects. We should take a page from the STEM advocates’ playbook and argue the case for our disciplines vigorously, both in the public arena and to policy makers at the local, state and national levels.

STEM’s Rise

The focus on science has its roots in a Cold War mentality. In 1957, as the United States rose to the challenge that Sputnik presented, science education leaped to the forefront of the national consciousness. Being “competitive” internationally wasn’t just about economics anymore, it meant defeating the Soviets. This represented an existential crisis that rests at the bottom of our current conversations about STEM.

In the late 1990s, the National Science Foundation rebranded their fields as “STEM.” Since then, proponents of STEM education have presented it as the key to attaining a high-paying job and fixing the economy, and they have found a receptive audience. In 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science (now called the Committee on Science, Space and Technology) asked the National Academies to “conduct an assessment of America’s ability to compete and prosper in the 21st century.” Their solution, which they published in the apocalyptically named “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” was an aggressive program of funding for STEM education as a way to ensure “quality jobs” for Americans. President George W. Bush then announced his American Competitiveness Initiative, aimed at promoting a STEM education agenda, which was superseded in 2007 by the America COMPETES Act.

Since the crash of 2008, anxiety about the future -- both personal and national -- has driven people further toward STEM. In addition to reauthorizing the COMPETES act in 2010, President Obama created his own STEM education program, Educate to Innovate. Now, even Sesame Street has created its own STEM education initiatives.

For students, the appeal of STEM education is understandable. College costs have ballooned, and job prospects have shrunk. Shouldering five- and six-figure student debts, they view college pragmatically and are attracted to the myth of a straight path into a lucrative career.

The problem for the arts and humanities is clear. As the American Academy of Sciences wrote in their 2014 funding report, even at its highest (in 2012), “spending for humanities research equaled 0.55% of the amount dedicated to science and engineering RD.” Congressional appropriations for the National Endowment for the Humanities dropped in the 1990s and have stayed flat or decreased since then. Enrollment in arts and humanities majors at leading universities has plummeted. And, heaping on even more financial injury, in 2012, Florida Governor Rick Scott proposed “differentiated tuition,” where those studying in STEM fields would pay less than those in disciplines that were not “strategic.”

How to Argue Our Worth Better

The response from scholars in the humanities has been fragmented. Some bristle at conceiving of their disciplines in terms of careers prepared for or skills taught. For them, the value of the arts and humanities is inherent: it leads people to live fuller, better-informed and more satisfying lives.

However, in the face of the fears of our students, their parents and public-policy makers who determine funding priorities -- and the easy answers that STEM proponents provide -- such a position is no longer sufficient. We must have better unifying principles and communicate them simply and forcefully in the public square. We must be better at showing the real, practical applications of what we do and argue not just for the inherent value of our disciplines but also their utility on the job market.

The unifying principle within STEM subjects is that they are, at their cores, focused on objects and objectivity. Though many STEM fields require significant creativity and intuition, they are fundamentally built on an objective approach to problems and solutions derived from data. Technology and engineering are, at their core, about designing and building things -- whether they be bridges or computer systems -- that are intended to perform a function and can be evaluated accordingly.

There is a different unifying principle for most non-STEM disciplines -- among them English, history, politics and civics, languages and literatures, education, the arts, philosophy, psychology and sociology -- which I call the human disciplines. All of the subjects within human disciplines are fundamentally interested in people and with subjectivity. Our disciplines not only illustrate esoteric questions of the meaning and purpose of life but are also uniquely well suited to explore questions of how to live and work with other people. In practical terms, if the job requires being able to work with and understand people -- particularly those different from yourself -- these degrees can, and should, make you better suited for it. They promote empathy, and require students to regard problems, and people, with complexity and the understanding that no single answer is right.

These kinds of jobs exist in all walks of life and include CEOs, kindergarten teachers, judges, advertisers, curators, coaches, social workers and many others. They form the linchpin of our society. They not only drive our economy but also make our country a better place to live by having good, well-trained people doing these jobs.

And these jobs are not just lucrative; they offer meaningful work. Understanding how to work with and inspire people makes you better suited to organize those around you toward a common goal, to write, speak and think with power and clarity, and to improve the lives of others. And, in practical terms, these are the jobs that are the least likely to be automated away.

So the onus is on us, within the human disciplines, to organize, to step up in the public arena, to work together -- beyond the ivory towers of our colleges and universities -- to fight for our continued existence. The skills we have to offer are tangible. The jobs we prepare our students for are plentiful and meaningful. We have at least 20 years of catching up to do in making our case to the public, but our disciplines have well prepared us for the task.

Paul B. Sturtevant is a research associate in the Office of Policy and Analysis at the Smithsonian Institution. He received his Ph.D. in Medieval Studies. He regularly writes at The Public Medievalist and tweets at @publicmedieval.

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New data on what humanities majors earn

Study agrees with conventional wisdom that they earn less majors in other fields, but challenges idea that they gain little (financially) from their degrees.

Column on event paying tribute to essayist George Scialabba

On Aug. 10, the City Council of Cambridge, Mass., passed, by unanimous vote, a resolution to which even the local media gave scant notice. But the document merits attention throughout the Republic of Letters, and quoting it at some length seems in order, since paraphrase would not do it justice:

“WHEREAS: George Scialabba is retiring on Aug. 31, 2015, from his job stationed in the basement of Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies, having diligently fulfilled the room scheduling needs of overpaid professors for 35 years; and

“WHEREAS: Scialabba has published over the same period nearly 400 essays, reviews and commentaries concerning literature, science, politics and morality from the perspectives of the bemused, the nonprivileged and the unsmug; and

“WHEREAS: To that end, Scialabba has spent thousands of hours pacing his apartment on Washington Avenue, gnashing his teeth over the sorry spectacle of American politics and the fearful mayhem of American capitalism, while himself hanging on by his fingertips,

“NOW THEREFORE LET IT BE RESOLVED: That the City of Cambridge hereby proclaims Sept. 10, 2015 ‘George Scialabba Day’ to honor Scialabba for staring unflinchingly into the abyss and reporting what he has found there in sensitive, true and graceful prose …”

In 2006, this column did its part to further the appreciation of George Scialabba by giving notice of Divided Mind, a sampler of his work in the form of a chapbook, issued by a small literary press called Pressed Wafer. Divided Mind was modest both in size and prize run, but it whetted enough readers’ appetites for the publisher to bring out What Are Intellectuals Good For? in 2009. Two more collections have appeared since then; a fourth volume is on its way. (All available through online retailers or the press itself.)

To continue with the Cambridge City Council proclamation, picking up where the ellipsis left off:

“RESOLVED: That the City of Cambridge encourages those of its residents who still practice the habit of reading to place their collective tongues in their collective cheeks and to celebrate the achievements of George Scialabba on Sept. 10, 2015; and finally

“RESOLVED: That the city clerk is hereby requested to forward a suitably embossed copy of this resolution to the Committee to Preserve George Scialabba and Others Like Him (If Any).”

And so Noam Chomsky and Barbara Ehrenreich will be among the featured speakers tomorrow night at “Three Cheers for George Scialabba,” to be held at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge. Tickets for the event were sold out as of Sunday. And that was before the Boston Globe’s prominently placed feature on the event. (Large blocks of tickets were purchased by well-read but ruthless scalpers, according to the rumor I just thought up.)

The Committee to Preserve George Scialabba consists, as far as I can tell, mainly of John Summers, editor of The Baffler, where Scialabba is a contributing editor. In an email note he describes the planned course of Thursday night’s festivities as a series of toasts by speakers -- running “anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes or so” each, followed by a hoisting of the glasses -- which will be interspersed with the screening of a video consisting of tributes by friends and readers who can’t attend. It will be made available online the next day.

“The toasts will branch out from [George’s] person,” Summers says, “into the larger, collective issues and situations of contemporary intellectual life. We will focus on the persistence of independent-minded writing and thinking outside the professions and institutions -- the sort of people who don't need to ask permission.” (Summers has been named by Scialabba as his literary executor and will presumably handle the Library of America edition of his essays.)

So much acclaim would swell the heads of most people. My impression from speaking with Scialabba by phone is that he is happy but embarrassed and will likely remain in that state for the duration. As a young man he was a member of Opus Dei -- a Roman Catholic organization primarily for laymen, known for its unyielding advocacy of theological tradition. And although studying intellectual history as a Harvard University undergraduate eventually cost him his religious faith (“the foundations had been crumbling all through my junior and senior years”), it seems that the years of quasi-monastic discipline mortified the ego right out of him.

The experience of leaving a closed but rigorous moral and intellectual worldview left him in a position that has been difficult and, at times, painful, but also rewarding, at least for his readers. It taught him “that ideas matter,” the historian Rick Perlstein writes in the preface to Scialabba’s next book. “That they are a matter of life and death …. He believes that achieving freedom, whatever the generals on CNN and the editorialists of The Wall Street Journal say, is neither a function of American arms or the sacred working out of the laws of supply and demand. It is caused by human beings exercising their reason, autonomously, from the ground up.”

The title of that forthcoming volume is Low, Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews, 1980-2015. The indicated span happens to coincide with the years Scialabba has been a clerical worker at Harvard, managing the building that houses the Center for International Affairs and a number of smaller research centers. Part of the legend that circulates among his admirers concerns a file cabinet in his basement office that was filled with all the writing he'd done when not busy scheduling room usage or checking on the progress of air-conditioning repairs.

It turns out that not only is the story true but that the files are still there. Clearing them out remains his last workplace-related chore. He says there are no unfinished books among them, or manuscripts for posthumous discovery -- and that with Low, Dishonest Decades, most of the work he’d want preserved will be between covers, apart from a few recent essays. I was disappointed to hear that, at least initially.

But now he has a good pension (“thanks to the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers,” he stresses) and more time. So let me end by repeating what I said in the video that will be shown on Thursday night: while the world is not exactly crying out for more memoirs, an exception can be made for the memoirs of someone who joined Opus Dei as a teenager and read his way out of it. The tributes to George Scialabba will soon be over; let his late-life flourishing begin!

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Analysis considers contradictions in high school and college students' interest in humanities

New analysis seeks to explain the declining interest of high school students in studying the humanities in college, and a reversal once they arrive.

Essay on Michel Foucault's posthumous publications

Franz Kafka left explicit directions concerning the journals, letters and manuscripts that would be found following his death: they were to be burned -- all of them -- unread. Whether he expected Max Brod, the executor of his estate, to follow through with his instructions is a matter of some debate. In any case, Brod refused, and the first volume of Kafka’s posthumous works came out shortly after the author’s death in 1925.

The disregard for his wishes can be explained, if not justified, on a couple of grounds. For one thing, Kafka was a lawyer, and he must have known that expressing his intentions in a couple of notes wouldn’t be binding -- it takes a will to set forth a mandate in ironclad terms. And, too, Brod was both Kafka’s closest friend and the one person who recognized him as a writer of importance, even of genius. Expecting Brod not to preserve the manuscripts -- much less to leave them unread! -- hardly seems realistic.

On the other hand, Kafka himself destroyed most of his own manuscripts and did so in the same way he told Brod to do it, by setting them on fire. It is reasonable to suppose he meant what he said. If so, world literature has been enriched by an act of blatant disloyalty.

“Don’t pull the Max Brod trick on me,” Michel Foucault is said to have admonished friends. The philosopher and historian did Kafka one better by including a blunt, categorical line in his will: “No posthumous publications.”

Be that as it may, in late spring the University of Minnesota Press issued Language, Madness, and Desire: On Literature, a volume of short texts by Foucault originally published in France two years ago and translated by Robert Bonnono. The same press and translator also turned the surviving pages of an autobiographical interview from 1968 into a little book with big margins called Speech Begins After Death. The title is kind of meta, since Foucault, like Kafka, seems to be having an unusually wordy afterlife.

Foucault died in June 1984, the very month that the second and third volumes of The History of Sexuality appeared. He left a fourth volume in manuscript, but given the circumstances, it was destined only for the archives. And so things stood for about a decade. There was the occasional lecture or transcript of an interview he had given permission to publish, with claims made it was the “final” or “last” Foucault. After a while this started to get kind of silly, and it only made the thinker’s absence more palpable. Daniel Defert, the administrator of his estate, had also been Foucault’s lover for many years, and he seems to have taken the ban on posthumous works to heart in a way that Max Brod never did.

But by 1994, Defert relented enough to allow a four-volume collection of Foucault’s essays and interviews to be published in France. (A few years later, the New Press brought out an abridged translation as the three-volume Essential Works of Michel Foucault.) By the 20th anniversary of the thinker’s death in 2004, the situation had changed dramatically. Six of Foucault’s 13 courses of lectures at the Collège de France had been published and the rest were on the way. In September, Palgrave Macmillan is bringing out On the Punitive Society, at which point the whole series will be available in English. That adds another shelf’s worth of stout, dense and rich volumes to the corpus of Foucault’s work -- overlapping in various ways with the books he published (e.g., the Punitive Society lectures were given as he was working on Discipline and Punish) but developing his ideas along different trajectories and in front of an audience, sometimes in response to its questions.

In a paper published last year, John Forrester, a professor of history and philosophy at the University of Cambridge, expresses a mingled appreciation and dismay at how what he calls Foucault’s “pithy and ultra-clear command, ‘Pas de publication posthume,’” has been breached in the case of the Collège de France courses. The paper appears in Foucault Now: Current Perspectives in Foucault (Polity).

“Because these were public lectures,” writes Forrester, “they had already been placed in the public domain ‘dans son vivant,’ as the French language says, in his lifetime. Their transcription and editing therefore is not the production of posthumous texts, but the translation from one already published medium -- for instance, the tape recorder -- to another, the book.” While grateful that Brod and Defert “found a way to publish what Kafka and Foucault forbade them to publish,” he says, “that doesn’t mean to say I think they were right. They did right by me and many, very many, others. But I can’t see how they obeyed the legal injunction placed on them.”

Language, Madness, and Desire consists of six items it was not difficult to squeeze through that dans son vivant loophole, since they were delivered to audiences as radio broadcasts or lectures between 1963 and 1970. Speech Begins After Death is another matter entirely. It consists of the opening exchanges from a series of interviews Foucault gave to Claude Bonnefoy, a literary critic, in 1968. The plan had been to produce a book. It never came together for some reason (1968 was a big year for getting distracted), none of it was published and most of the transcript has been lost.

In short, there’s no real wiggle room for rationalizing Speech Begins After Death as permissible under the terms of Foucault’s will. And this is where things get interesting. To be blunt about it, Language, Madness, and Desire is not going to come as much of a revelation to anyone who has read, say, the literary essays in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice (the Cornell University Press anthology of Foucault’s work from the 1960s and early 1970s that’s still one of the best things out there). It would not be surprising if it turns out there are dozens of other such pieces which could slip past Foucault’s ban without adding much to the body of work he saw through the press.

By contrast, Speech Begins After Death is (1) a clear violation of the author’s wishes and (2) a pretty good example of why violating them might be a good idea. In later years Foucault was used to giving interviews but in 1968 he was uncomfortable with the whole process. Being treated as an author or a literary figure (rather than an academic) only makes him more nervous. As sometimes happens, the performance anxiety, once he gets it under control, inspires him to think out loud in a way that seems to surprise him.

One passage almost jumps off the page:

“As long as we haven’t started writing, it seems to be the most gratuitous, the most improbable thing, almost the most impossible, and one to which, in any case, we’ll never feel bound. Then, at some point -- is it the first page, the thousandth, the middle of the first book, or later? I have no idea -- we realize that we’re absolutely obligated to write. This obligation is revealed to you, indicated in various ways. For example, by the fact that we experience so much anxiety, so much tension if we haven’t finished that little page of writing, as we do each day. By writing that page, you give yourself, you give to your existence, a form of absolution. That absolution is essential for the day’s happiness.”

Like Kafka's demand for a book that “must be the ax for the frozen sea within us,” these lines are worth whatever guilt was incurred by whoever rescued them for us.

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A new funding program at the NEH hopes to bring more humanities research to the general public

New grants from National Endowment for the Humanities aim to encourage books based on humanities research that are accessible to nonscholars.

Review of Adam Mack, "Sensing Chicago: Noisemakers, Strikebreakers and Muckrakers"

The most distracting thing about costume dramas set in any period before roughly the turn of the 20th century -- in my experience, anyway -- is the thought that everything and everyone on screen must have smelled really bad. The most refined lords and gentry on Wolf Hall did not bathe on anything we would regard today as a regular basis.

No doubt there were exceptions. But until fairly recently in human history, even the most fastidious city dweller must have grown accustomed to the sight of human waste products from chamber pots that had been emptied in the street. (And not just the sight of it, of course.) Once in a while a movie or television program will evince something of a previous era’s ordinary grunge, as in The Return of Martin Guerre or Deadwood, where almost everything looks soiled, fetid and vividly uncomfortable. But that, too, is exceptional. The audience for costume drama is often looking for charm, nostalgia or escapism, and so the past usually wears a deodorant.

The wider public may not have heard of it, but a “sensory turn” among American historians has made itself felt in recent years -- an attention, that is, to the smells, tastes, textures and sounds of earlier periods. I refer to just four senses, because the importance of sight was taken for granted well before the turn. In their more polemical moments, sensory historians have even referred to “the tyranny of the visual” within their discipline.

That seems a little melodramatic, but point taken: historians have tended to scrutinize the past using documents, images, maps and other artifacts that chiefly address the eye. Coming in second as the organ of perception most likely to play a role in historical research would undoubtedly be the ear, thanks to the advent of recorded sound. The remaining senses tie for last place simply because they leave so few traces -- which, in any case, are not systematically preserved the way audiovisual materials are. We have no olfactory or haptic archives; it is difficult to imagine a library of flavors.

Calls to overcome these obstacles -- to analyze whatever evidence could be found about how everyday life once sounded, smelled, felt, etc. -- came from American historians in the early 1990s, with a few pioneers at work in Europe even before that. But the field of sensory history really came into its own over the past decade or so, with Mark M. Smith’s How Race is Made: Slavery, Segregation and the Senses (University of North Carolina Press, 2006) and Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting and Touching in History (University of California Press, 2007) being among the landmarks. Smith, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina, also convened a roundtable on the sensory turn published in the September 2008 issue of The Journal of American History. A number of the contributors are on the editorial board of the Studies in Sensory History series published by the University Illinois Press, which launched in 2011.

The series’ fifth and most recent title is Sensing Chicago: Noisemakers, Strikebreakers and Muckrakers by Adam Mack, an assistant professor of history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Beyond the monographic focus -- it covers about fifty years of the city’s history -- the book demonstrates how much of the sensory field of an earlier era can be reconstructed, and why doing so can be of interest.

Overemphasis on the visual dimension of an urban landscape “mirrors a set of modern cultural values that valorize the eye as the barometer of truth and reason,” we read in the introduction, “and tend to devalue the proximate, ‘lower’ senses as crude and less rational.” Having thus recapitulated one of sensory history’s founding premises, the author wastes no time before heading to one site that must have forced its way deep into the memory of anyone who got near it in the 19th century: the Chicago River.

“A bed of filth,” one contemporary observer called it, where manure, blood, swill and unusable chunks of carcass from the slaughterhouses ended up, along with human sewage and dead animals -- all of it (an editorialist wrote) “rotting in the sun, boiling and bubbling like the lake of brimstone, and emitting the most villainous fumes,” not to mention drawing clouds of flies. A letter writer from 1862 mentions that the water drawn from his kitchen hydrant contained “half a pint or more of rotten fish.” Many people concluded that it was safest just to drink beer instead.

Laws against dumping were passed and commissions appointed to investigate the problem, for all the good it did. The poorest people had to live closest to the river, so disgust at the stench combined in various ways with middle- and upper-class attitudes towards them, as well as with nativist prejudices.

The horrific odor undermined efforts to construct a modern, rationally organized city. Imposing a grid of streets on the landscape might please the eye, but smell didn’t respect geometry. The same principle applied to the Great Fire of 1871, the subject of Mack’s next chapter. The heat and sheer sensory overload were overwhelming, and the disaster threw people from all walks of life together in the streets in a way that made social status irrelevant, at least for a while. The interplay between social hierarchy and sensory experience (exemplified in references to “the roar of the mob”) is the thread running through the rest of the book. Thinking of the “‘lower’ senses as crude and less rational” -- to quote the author’s phrase again -- went along with assumptions about refinement or coarseness as markers of class background.

The sources consulted by the author are much the same as any other historian might use: newspapers, civic records, private or otherwise unpublished writings by long-forgotten people, such as the recollections of the Great Fire by witnesses, on file at the Chicago History Museum. The contrast is at the level of detail -- that is, the kinds of detail the historian looks for and interprets. Perhaps the next step would be for historians to enhance their work with direct sensory documentation.

A prototype might be found in the work of John Waters, who released one of his movies in Odorama. Audience members received cards with numbered scratch-and-sniff patches, which they consulted when prompted by a message on the screen.

On second thought, it was difficult enough to read Mack’s account of the Chicago River in the 19th century without tickling the gag reflex. Olfactory realism might push historical accuracy farther than anyone really wants it to go.

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